Though I ultimately received my undergraduate degree from a university in California, I watched A Different World and wanted desperately to attend a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). The idea of going to a school where each teacher and fellow classmate understood my unique experience thrilled me to no end.
I constantly fantasized about fulfilling my destiny as a member of the Talented Tenth—a destiny I believed was best achieved through education at an HBCU. At an HBCU, I believed I would not have to live a double-conscious existence. I was confident that I would be nurtured there, my mind cultivated and enriched with the true and complete history of my people and our innumerable contributions to the American and global landscape. And after achieving a degree in Biology with a minor in Chemistry, I would join the ranks of those history makers by creating a lifesaving device that would simultaneously deliver all Black people from oppression and discrimination. Boy, were my dreams of HBCU matriculation grand.
In pursuit of HBCU attendance, I joined Vallejo Senior High’s Tanner Project, a kind of after-school, college-preparatory program for students of color who wanted to attend an HBCU. I took the ACT and SAT many times. I got involved in student leadership and preyed on volunteer opportunities to strengthen my resume. I applied for scholarships. I drafted several college admission essays. I did everything I possibly could until I got that acceptance letter to Xavier University of Louisiana and found myself in New Orleans (the summer before my freshmen year) at the Howard Hughes Biomedical Honors program.
New Orleans was such a different world from suburban Northern California. The architecture. The people. The accent. The weather. The smell. But the counselors and advisers in the program took my hand as best they could and gave me a full introduction into what my life would be like for the next four years. They gave us program participants a full tour of Xavier’s campus from Xavier South to the Library Resource Center. They showed us how to catch the trolley. They treated us to a crawfish and shrimp boil complete with potatoes and corn. They showed us how to do all the dances in Jubilee All. And most importantly, they had the students of Xavier Prep put on a parade and step show for us.
Oh my God. Watching those girls perform, I was fit to be tied. An excitement rose in my chest like you wouldn’t believe. I think I actually cried in response to what I saw. You see, I’m a dancer at heart, a mover and a twirker, a shaker and a jiver. I don’t have the best moves or most fluid coordination, but I dance with the joy of my ancestors and the energy of a thousand suns. And seeing those movements, the likes of which I had never seen in person in California, made an indelible impression upon me. From that moment on, during the brief course of my tenure at Xavier, I rarely missed a party, a rally, an exposition, or an event which presented the possibility of seeing someone (usually one or multiple groups associated with the Divine Nine) step. Why I never actually pledged so I too could step…well that’s another blog post.
At the time, I never questioned the history or the origins of stepping. Like so many other things in Black culture, it was something I immediately identified with, something that I felt connected to on a molecular level, something that I intuitively knew to belong to me. Years later, I’d be here in Atlanta watching a documentary about the South African gold mines, learn about gumboots, and cry just as I had cried when watching those Xavier Prep girls.
In South Africa, diamonds were discovered in Kimberley in 1867 and gold was discovered in Wiwatersrand (Johannesburg) in 1886. These discoveries ushered in an explosion of European colonization in the region which effectively saw indigenous South Africans lose their political and economic independence. As is the case with most of the world’s history of the discovery of natural resources that can equate to enormous financial gain, somebody had to be exploited. The Africans would pay the price—their Black bodies used to mine their ancestral lands in the harshest of conditions for the lowest of wages.
As per the following excerpt from this site on the history of gumboots:
The gold mines they worked in were completely dark and flooded. The flooding caused skin breakdown like ulcers and several diseases. Not only was their work environment harsh, but so was the rules or guidelines. Workers were chained to their work stations with shackles and not allowed to speak to one another while working months at a time. Many workers were killed during this work by accidents, while others were beaten and abused.
Instead of draining the mines to provide safer work conditions, mine owners outfitted the laborers with large rubber boots or “gumboots.” Because the miners were restricted from communicating, they developed a form of communication by creating rhythms using their hands, chains and gumboots. In time, it became a dance called Isicathulo, or the Gumboot dance which is demonstrated here.
After learning about gumboots, I still wondered about the connection to the Black frats and sors in America. How did a dance originating in South African mines come to be a common practice of social groups who were descendants of West Africans? According to this paper at AUSdance.org, there is no direct connection:
On college campuses, many African Americans joined black Greek-letter organizations to help one another succeed despite harsh antagonism and intense discrimination. It was in this setting that stepping developed. Black fraternity brothers were not trying to show pride in their African heritage or to make an Africanist statement of any sort. They were simply meeting together with friends on the quad to sing the hits of the Temptations, Four Tops, and others. Soon these brothers were imitating the suave dance moves of the music groups and improvising some of their own to win attention from the girls, which in turn would win more recruits to the fraternities. Over time, the dancing was combined with other aspects of black Greek culture such as marching around the quad, standing on the line, undergoing the probate process, displaying symbols of group identity, singing fraternity hymns, et cetera. And thus stepping was born.
But if you look at Black Greek stepping and Gumboot dance side by side, how can there be no relationship between the two? This same AUSdance.org paper goes on to state that as Black Greek stepping grew and adapted so did its connection with and embrace of African gumboots and other step-dance style traditions throughout the African continent.
For me, despite the lack of a direct lineage between the dance styles, I am moved. Both of these groups inherently decided to dance, and I feel that. I feel that deeply. There is something about the African experience, the Black experience, that directs us to move even when we are confronted with hostilities and grief and abuse and destruction on all sides. There is something within our collective spirits that prompts us to dance because dance is both a universal call and response that dwells within us—one that can not and must not be denied.
In the book, African Dance: An Artistic , Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, dance is described this way:
The dance is strong magic. The dance is a spirit. It turns the body into liquid steel. It makes it vibrate like a guitar. The body can fly without wings. It can sign without a voice. The dance is strong magic. The dance is life.
And to this, I say Amen.